Our Subaru Forester was sliding sideways down Interstate 80 at fifty miles per hour. My wife, Nan, had gingerly switched to the left-hand lane to avoid a truck that was overturned on the right shoulder, but no amount of experience, skill, or caution could overcome our car’s mass and momentum on a nearly frictionless surface. In an instant, we’d lost traction on the icy highway and were headed toward the wide median between the east- and westbound traffic.
“We’ll be all right. Just hang on,” I said as Nan gripped the wheel. I figured that we might roll once we hit the grassy median, but with seatbelts and airbags we’d survive. I had time to analyze our chances because the whole event seemed to be unfolding in slow motion. As we slid into the median we didn’t roll. We didn’t even slow down. The sleet had glazed the grass so that we skated over sixty feet of frozen ground and headed across the oncoming lanes. Then I saw it coming.
A semi-truck was barreling toward us. I could see the driver, the silver bulldog hood ornament, the chrome grill. I rationalized that the impact wouldn’t be so bad because the road was a sheet of ice; we would bounce off the truck like a hockey puck ricocheting off the boards. Of course, a head-on collision would have been fatal, but I was blessedly unable to grasp my own mortality in the interminable moments as the gap closed. I winced and braced—and then came the bang.
We flattened the reflector post on the far side of the highway as the truck roared by on our right. The Subaru tilted hard to the left, then rocked to stillness. My calm detachment gave way to terror and relief. We’d cheated death by a few feet. However, it took days before I understood the gift that had been given to me.
The gift was not that we lived. Nor did I see survival as some sort of message from the Almighty about a mysterious purpose we had yet to fulfill. The physics of the world on that day simply and disinterestedly unfolded in such a way that the truck missed us. Not because we were special, or good, or called to something great, but just because when you roll the dice sometimes you get lucky. There was no greater power to thank. The meaning of the near-death experience was for me to make.
I don’t believe there is a guiding hand of God shoving Subarus onto the shoulders of icy roads, but that does not mean my life has no purpose. I am part of an intractably complex world that gives me the raw material from which I am free to craft gifts and make meaning—gifts that are as authentic as life itself and meaning that is every bit as real as an oncoming truck. So, when I am trying to decide whether to take a day off to be with my family, whether my kids are now too old to kiss goodnight, whether there is time to have lunch with a colleague, whether a neighbor needs a hand clearing his yard after a windstorm, or whether to accept an awkward invitation to a dinner from a lonely acquaintance—all of which came up recently—I open my gifts.